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5 Myths of Positive Psychology

There's more to happiness research than meets the eye.

Psychology in general, and positive psychology in particular, are different from all other sciences. Because every human has personal experience with psychological concepts—emotions, motivation, and decision making, for instance—people tend to form opinions about these topics. You rarely find a lay person with a strong opinion about when to focus on “log income” (an economic term) or who has a pet theory about “light refraction” (physics), or who believes that some of the results from research on telomeres (biology) may be over stated. By contrast, you often come across people who hold a strong opinion about the causes of happiness or who can whip off some supposed statistic about the relationship between money and happiness. In part this is because people are generally more interested in happiness than they are in light refraction (sorry, physicists). It is also, in part, the result of misinformation and misunderstandings related to the science of positive psychology. Here are 5 commonly held assumptions about positive psychology topics that are—well—not true:

1. Severely disabled people adapt back to their earlier levels of happiness: In 1978, Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bullman published an article on the happiness of lottery winners and accident victims. These days their findings are commonly interpreted by lay people as hopeful evidence that people can adapt to just about anything. Unfortunately, the original article showed that the 29 accident victims, interviewed between one month and one year following their accident, reported that they thought the accident was just about the worst thing that could have happened to them. They reported significantly lower pleasure and also remembered there past happiness as being significantly better than did members of a control group. Their current happiness was higher than you might expect and their predicted future happiness was no different from that of the controls. The authors concluded that disabled people tended to idealize their past and that this did not help their current happiness. This finding—that disability is psychologically difficult—has been replicated with larger samples using more sophisticated research designs. One interesting finding related to this topic is that income is a factor in how well disabled people adapt to their new circumstances with wealthier individuals—presumably—able to afford more help and conveniences.

2. 40% of your happiness is the result of your own choices: This idea is the result of a well-known pie chart created by Sonja Lyubomirsky who, interestingly enough, does not believe this myth herself. Lyubomirsky has simply summarized research that suggests that genetics, life circumstances and personal choices are all implicated in the differences in levels of happiness between people. Unfortunately, the public has run away with this pie chart and misinterpreted it as if it has something to do with an individual’s happiness; it does not. If you think about it, it is nonsensical to speak about 40% of your happiness being the result of personal choices. Further, within an individual it does not make sense to separate genetics from circumstances from personal choices. All three interact and mutually influence one another. In the end, it is the spirit of the pie chart that people warm to: the notion that you have some control over your own happiness. Rest assured, that sentiment is correct.

3. Making more money won’t make you any happier: This is a very popular myth and you hear it voiced in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is “money matters to happiness only up to the level of 10 thousand dollars a year and then it no longer matters” and sometimes it is “As countries get wealthier they do not enjoy a corresponding rise in happiness.” In either case the data don’t exactly back up these well-intended statements. People warm to these myths largely because of their anti-materialism messages. Unfortunately, gaining more income does appear to be associated with more happiness and—at the national level—household income reliably predicts happiness. This is because money can be translated to psychological security, more leisure and self-growth pursuits, better goal pursuit, better national infrastructure and a whole host of other individual and collective benefits. Again, the mis-interpreters may miss the mark on the research results but still hit home on an important message: placing income before people can detract from happiness and, at the national level, there can be environmental consequences for rampant consumption. A more accurate take-home would be “financial circumstances can affect happiness but is certainly not the most important factor.”

4. Good moods motivate change: There has long been an assumption on the behalf of lay people that emotions motivate behavior. You can see this when someone says “I only yelled because I was angry.” Modern scientists tend to distinguish between emotional expression (e.g. yelling) and the actual feeling of emotion. Emotions are information, giving you a quick thumbs up/thumbs down about the current quality of your life. Emotions provide insight. They can pave the way for change but they do not necessarily pave the way for change. People often try to avoid negative emotions because they fear they will cause negative actions and promote positive emotions because they believe these will cause positive actions. You can avoid this common trap by thinking of emotion as a highly sophisticated radar system scanning your horizon.

5. Happiness is our desired state: There is ample reason to believe that happiness is desirable. In one study people from around the globe rated being happy above other desirable goals such as falling in love or even getting into heaven. Not only that but there is emerging evidence that happiness boosts sociability, creativity and your immune system. Happiness may not cure cancer but it appears to be able to fend off the common cold. So it is easy to see why people think happiness is so desirable. It is important to note that while happiness is beneficial, it is not necessarily something we should experience intensely. One study, for instance, showed that extremely positive feelings can make other events seem less positive by contrast. Similarly, being completely satisfied with life appears to undercut achievement. Students who are very highly satisfied have lower GPAs than their counterparts who are merely satisfied and people who are in the 80% for cheerfulness and satisfaction make less money than do their super happy counterparts. It may be that there is more to life than getting good grades and making money but this is initial evidence that happiness is good for some things (e.g. health) but too much of it may run counter to achievement.

In the end it is not my intention to disparage the science of positive psychology. The number of useful findings that have emerged from this field are legion: positive moods boost immune functioning, keeping track of your kindnesses can promote happiness, people high in hope perform better on a wide range of tasks, celebrating the success of a romantic partner is a good predictor of relationship longevity, the list goes on. The findings are so many, and so far ranging, that we don’t need to waste our time clinging to myths that stem from mis- interpretations of research results.